Fighting and Flighting

5 Apr

During the doula training I mentioned a few posts ago, I was introduced to a concept that made scratch my head. The premise is that men and women respond to acute stress in different ways. My trainer explained that while the male response to acute stress is the famous “fight or flight” response, research has shown that women react in a different way: they “tend and befriend.”

[One of the first Google Images “Fight or Flight” search results]

“Fight or flight” was first coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in the second decade of the 1900s. This phenomenon has been studied many times over, in humans and animals. According to its theory (or at least Wikipedia’s version of it): “animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing.” The physiological fight or flight (F/F) response includes acceleration of heart and lung action, inhibition of stomach action, constriction of blood vessels, relaxation of bladder, inhibition of erection, dilation of pupils, tunnel vision, inhibition of salivation, etc. According to my trainer, these biological reactions prepared ancient man to fight the saber-toothed tiger or climb a tree for safety. She suggested that this model is outdated because it does not account for another reaction to stress that humans exhibit: social connections and bonding.

To explain this omission, she explained that  women, in contrast to men, naturally “tend and befriend” (T/B). This refers to protecting one’s offspring and seeking out social support for mutual defense. This theory came out of the research showing that when women are faced with stress, they release significantly higher levels of oxytocin – known by some as the “love hormone” – than men. Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released during sexual intercourse, birthing, and peer bonding. According to Linda Rolufs, MTF, oxytocin “has a calming effect and creates in [women], a strong desire to nurture, protect and build relationships. Then in response to the nurturing, protecting and relationship building more oxytocin is released and this brings on stronger feelings of calm and well being.” Thus, it is posited that the female physiological reaction to stress pushes them to seek survival through human contact and bonding, while the male physiological reaction prepares them toward survival through solo action.

Tend and befriend for stress relief

[One of the first Google Images “Tend and Befriend” search results]

This framing of differences makes me uncomfortable, although I’m not sure if what I’m feeling is anger because I think it’s false, or fear because it may be true. On one hand, this theory has far-reaching implications, the worst of which being that men are inherently aggressive and women are innately social creatures. We see this all over the place: boys commit physical aggression (e.g., fighting) while girls commit “relational” aggression (e.g., gossip). Yet I have a hard time swallowing this. Although the male and female physiologies are obviously different in many ways, do these differences extend to our programmed responses to stress?

Many would say that men’s aggression and women’s “tending” are socialized, gendered behaviors. Men are taught to be strong and aggressive, while women are taught to be emotional and social. “Tend and Befriend” discounts the socialization argument and dives straight for the pituitary: our reactions are determined by our genes, not our culture. While this explains women’s “social” habits, it also attempts to explain men’s high rates of violence, thus exonerating them of agency.

Is “Tend and Befriend” sexist? When pitted against “Fight or Flight” as an “either-or” situation, I think it has negative implications. It reinforces the idea that males are innately violent and that gregariousness is an inherently un-male (or feminine, in the gender binary system) quality. This hurts males by normalizing certain (violent) behaviors and pathologizing other (more social) ones. It also hurts women, by implying that they should be more pacific and connected to other women. Thus, those who do not fit these descriptions are “defying their nature” (a Google-able and bigoted phrase we often hear about gay people). Am I off here? Does this smell fishy to anyone else?

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